Since our last review, Google has combined its in-store, online, and person-to-person payment apps into a single offering called Google Pay. This one app handles all your transactions, instead of forcing you to use Google Pay Send for paying people and Android Pay for NFC. The app works on iOS as well as Android and the web, so it has broader appeal than both Apple Pay and Samsung Pay. Google Pay offers both NFC payment at tons of venues and smart watch support, as Apple’s and Samsung’s services do. Venmo, PayPal, Square Cash, and Zelle don’t. The only question you need to ask is, “Do I mind connecting yet another part of my life to Google?” If the answer is no, you’ll be well-served by this easy-to-use, full-featured payment app. It’s our Editors’ Choice for mobile payment apps.
Google’s payment app strategy has been something of a moving target over the past few years. First, there was Google Wallet, which also let you pay stores using NFC technology, Apple Pay. Then that feature was removed and transferred to Android Pay. (Google is moving toward downplaying the Android brand in favor of its own corporate moniker.) Along the way, we also saw Pay with Google, and an experimental payment app called Hands Free. Thankfully, all that confusion is now in the past.
How to Set Up Google Pay
I installed Google Pay on an Apple iPhone X and a Google Pixel 4 XL. If you previously had Android Pay installed, Google Pay just appears on your phone. When you first open Google Pay, the Android Pay app disappears. If none of that applies to you, you can still download the app from the Play Store or the Apple
When you set up Google Pay, you can choose to make it your Android phone’s only NFC payment app. So, if you’ve been using PayPal, Venmo, or Samsung Pay, those apps will no longer function at points of sale. As you might expect, Apple doesn’t allow third-party apps access to NFC payments, so on that platform your only choice is Apple Pay.
If you’ve previously entered a card in Android Pay, it carries over without further action in Google Pay. But if you’ve previously entered payment info for Google payments, the Play store, or other Google services, that doesn’t carry over into Google Pay. Like most payment apps, Google Pay lets you use your phone’s camera to take a picture of the card to ease entering payment source info. One surprise in this round of testing: You can use PayPal as a source for funding your Google Pay account!
As with all mobile payment apps, you need to enter a bank debit card to receive payments, but you can also enter credit cards for making payments. Payments have no fees, because Google Pay doesn’t allow you to pay acquaintances with a credit card—you need to have a debit card or bank account associated with your account. Other services like Venmo allow you to use a credit card, but they pass along a three percent fee for this. Note that paying with a credit card avails you of liability protections, whereas paying from your bank account leaves any dispute resolution up to the endpoint financial institutions.
Paying With Google
Unlike Apple Pay, Google Pay only works if your phone is unlocked, but you can also set Google Pay to require biometric verification—as you can with Apple Pay, PayPal, and Samsung Pay. With Google Pay, you unlock your phone and then hold it to the point of sale, and your payment goes through with no further action (unless it’s a large purchase requiring a signature). With Apple Pay and Samsung Pay, you don’t need to unlock your phone, but for the payment to go through you must use biometric login or a PIN to complete the transaction.
My experience using Google Pay at a local supermarket was smooth as silk. As the help says, you “just unlock your phone and hold it to the terminal until you see a check mark. You don’t even need to open the app.” It was easier than paying with Apple Pay on a recent iPhone, which requires holding the phone up to your face and double-clicking the side button—something that requires more dexterity than the simple Google Pay process.
Paying Friends With Google Pay
Since our last review, Google has bolstered the Google Pay app with the acquaintance-paying feature that was formerly in the separate Google Pay Send app. This puts it in league with Venmo, Square Cash, and PayPal. The process is simple, and you can pay or request money either on your mobile device or in a web browser. You can also set up reminders for recurring payments. The same site lets you see all your Google Pay activity, whether it’s person-to-person or commercial.
You can send up to $10,000 in a single transaction and that same amount is your weekly limit, though the limit for a payment is $300 before you’ve verified your identity. This is more generous than Venmo and PayPal, which have limits of $5,000. Florida residents can transfer only up to $3,000 with Google, and transactions over $2,500 require a bank account added to the recipient’s Google Pay account.
You don’t, however, get a Venmo-like social network to see who your friends are paying for what, if that appeals to you. Nor can you pay people in other countries as you can with Xoom, though residents of the US and India can make person-to-person transfers. (Google publishes lists of countries for each type of payment.) Unlike Venmo, Google lets you use the service to receive payments for small business purposes such as childcare, consulting, or rentals. The service lets you enter tax info for your locality if you’re accepting business payments.
Google Pay Extras
The app’s Home tab shows a feed of offers, recent payments, and (if you’re on an Android device) local stores that let you pay with it contactlessly. The iOS app is somewhat more efficient, with only three tabs in the interface, dispensing with the Send tab in favor of showing profile circles of the contacts you’ve sent to previously at the top of the home screen.
The Payment tab is where you can not only add payment cards, but also other payment methods, including PayPal and Visa Checkout.
Another option is to link your account with Visa Checkout, a PayPal clone that lets you pay on websites. You can also use Google Pay to pay in certain apps, such as Airbnb and Fandango. But I found the list lacked some big apps that need payments, such as Amazon and eBay.
The Passes tab is where you enter loyalty program, gift card, and even transit system info. To add a loyalty card, you simply take a picture of it within the app. You have many choices, including Best Buy, Dick’s Sporting Goods, Macy’s, Panera, Starbucks, Target, and Walgreens. The selection of cities you can buy transit passes for isn’t huge: Only six options appear, with none of the major US cities represented. If you’re using the busses in Stockton, California, or that tiny monorail in Las Vegas, you’re all set!
You can use the service from some pricey smartwatches from Tag Heuer, Louis Vuitton, and Movado, and some more affordable models from Huawei and LG. I tested paying by watch with the huge, hulking LG Watch Sport (which nearly doubled the girth of your stalwart reviewer’s slender wrist). You need to set up a PIN on the smart watch, but I didn’t have to reenter the credit card info that was in my Google Pay account, aside from reverifying it with the CVV number.
Happily, when I paid for my morning java, I just held down the bottom button on the watch, which opened an image of my credit card. I didn’t have to re-enter the PIN, and the NFC transaction worked, confirmed by a haptic buzz. The cashier did warn me that, just as with a credit card, the café had a $5 minimum for mobile app payments, but she’d let me get away with the $2.50 coffee this once.
One extra found in other payment apps is missing in Google Pay: Unlike Apple Pay, PayPal, or Venmo, it doesn’t let you start a payment using a voice assistant such as Siri or Google Assistant. I was surprised to find out that you can do this with Venmo but not with Google Pay on an Android phone.
How Secure Is Google Pay?
As with Apple Pay, Samsung Pay, and just about every other payment app (including its Android Pay predecessor), Google Pay doesn’t transfer your actual credit card number, but an encrypted code that the merchant transfers to the card issuer for verification.
Google also boasts that “Google Pay protects your payment info with multiple layers of security, using one of the world’s most advanced security infrastructures to help keep your account safe,” without providing any details about the encryptions used. They also direct users to a 34-second video stating what I’ve said above, along with the fact that you can remotely erase a lost or stolen phone. That last point is important, however. It means if someone steals your phone, you can wipe the virtual card and keep your credit card safe.
Privacy and Buyer Protections
When it comes to buyer protection, Google absolves itself of responsibility. The service terms clearly leave any disputes between you and the merchant or payment source. This means you should use a credit card as the payment source for big purchases, since those are required to offer you protections from liability by law. Note that’s not an option for person-to-person payments. The only mobile payment service I tested that even makes a claim to offering buyer protections is PayPal (though its Venmo subsidiary). I’ve read many complaints from people who had unsatisfactory experiences with PayPal’s buyer protection, however.
Should You Pay the Google Way?
Google Pay is an easy-to-use, highly functional NFC-payment app, and its streamlining of your gift cards and loyalty programs is an appreciated bonus. The service now smoothly combines the features of what was Android Pay (in-store and online payments) with what was Google Wallet and the former Google Pay Send for person-to-person paymentsm, which was an Editors’ Choice for peer-to-peer payments.
Some competitors let you pay friends using a credit card as well as debit or bank account, which Google Pay does not. Samsung Pay still offers the unique advantage of working with old, non-NFC points of sales; and PayPal offers more nominal buyer protections than Google Pay. Despite these minor complaints, Google Pay is PCMag’s new Editors’ Choice for mobile payment apps, and it’s especially appealing to those who use Android phones.